There is this massive misconception in the fitness community and mainstream society that yoga is for women, old people, or new-agey personalities.
This false belief is what keeps so many athletes and body-builders from realizing their optimal level of performance.
Break down that misconception, and you’ll find yoga is for every body—body-builders, CrossFit enthusiasts and triathlon athletes. This practice of stretching and breathing complements whatever activity an athlete participates in by strengthening the body physically.
The prolonged stretching movements of yoga —holding a pose for up to a minute—can improve your posture and the balance of strength in opposing muscle groups, as well as increase flexibility and range of motion. The more flexibility you have in your muscles, the greater you’re protected from injury. Yoga also helps relieve the stress accumulated in your muscles from the repetitive contracting movements of weightlifting, leaving you more relaxed and helping you sleep better at night.
As a massage therapist, teacher of dynamic movement and a student of kinesiology, the human body, its function, and the way it moves, I can speak for many reasons a body needs a yoga practice.
Whether you’re a competitive body builder, professional athlete or just hitting the gym to get in shape, here are 5 reasons why any athlete should incorporate yoga into their training regimen:
1. Builds and elongates muscle:
Not stretching actually limits the growth and size of muscle and its output. If washboard abs, big guns and killer calves are on your wish list then stretching should be part of your gym routine.
Yoga allows you to move through the full range of motion when it comes to hitting weights, in effect creating long and full muscles instead of stunted, stocky muscles. Stretching elongates the fascia, a protective sheath of connective tissue covering all muscles and muscle cells. On the molecular level, fascia tissue is actually stronger than structured steel. It’s very tough stuff! When yoga stretches fascia, the muscle underneath is ultimately given greater room to grow.
Without stretching, fascia and connective tissue becomes hard and adheres to surrounding organs, limiting muscle growth and capacity for function. Stretching also gives the muscle a greater shape and improves muscle separation. Stretching, when combined with proper whole-food nutrition, can even alter bone structures and can be especially good for muscle groups that don’t respond well to regular weight training.
2. Builds energy.
Although most other forms of exercise physically exhaust you, yoga will help energize you, mainly because of its focus on long, slow breaths that bring oxygen back to the muscles. The muscles enjoy the oxygen supply and the nutrients needed to keep them going throughout a rigorous workout. And since yoga is as much a mental practice as a physical one, it can help your thoughts become more directed and your attention more focused.
These benefits of yoga can make average bodybuilders look and feel better, but for competitive bodybuilders, they’re essential.
3. Increases strength.
Consistent yoga practice can increase your strength. Ever heard of a GTO? (No, we’re not talking about muscle cars here!) A GTO is a golgi tendon organ, or stretch receptor, and is found in the tendons near the ends of the muscle fibers. GTO’s respond to changes in muscle or tendon length.
Strength is related to your golgi tendon reflex threshold, which limits a muscle contraction well short of the point at which it would be injured. In other words, a GTO is a muscle’s saftey mechanism and will shut down to prevent injury. If we didn’t have golgi tendon organs, we could contract our muscles so powerfully that they’d tear off from their attachments!
Regular stretching gives your muscles the ability to fire more efficiently without shutting down in response to stretched tendons. In the weight room when you fail with a weight on a max rep, it isn’t just because of muscular fatigue: it’s
because your GTOs fired and shut down your muscles. So how do you raise your GTO threshold? By stretching your muscles and ligaments through regular yoga practice you can increase strength by as much as 20%. The higher your GTO threshold, the more intensity you can train with which leads to greater strength gains.
4. Reduces the risk of injury.
Just like vitamins and supplements are seen as preventative medicine for health by decreasing the likelihood of illness, stretching can be thought of as preventative medicine for the body by ensuring it stays mobile, flexible and, best of all, injury free.
Think of your fascia like silly dough. When liquid (hydration) and movement (kneading) is added, it becomes warm and pliable. When left alone, it becomes cold, hard, dried out and unmovable. You know that stiff feeling in your body when you wake up in the morning? That’s your fascia hardening overnight as your body becomes cool and still. Over time, this hardening of tissues can restrict movement and create congestion in the body. Keeping fascia and connective tissue pliable provides plenty of joint support and allows the rest of the body to function at its best.
A flexible body means that your long muscles are not as susceptible to tearing so you have plenty of room to move if you’re attempting a heavy lift.
5. Speeds recovery.
There is a reason as to why we are trained to stretch before and after exercise. Not only does stretching warm the body but it does wonders for recovery and may just prevent the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle syndrome).
Exercising creates toxins in the body as muscles are exerted. These toxins are metabolic waste, a by-product of the creation and burning of ATP or cellular energy within the body. By stretching the muscles after exercise, these toxins move into the bloodstream and out of the muscles, where they can be broken down and flushed out with proper hydration and the deep breathing, associated with yoga practice, brings vital oxygen back to those muscles taxed by exertion. So in effect, stretching after a tough training session means that when you’re tying your shoelaces or walking up a set of stairs the next morning you won’t be left feeling like a string puppet who just had their ropes tightened.
In many fitness modalities, stretching is often overlooked with so many of us eager to get on with the tough stuff, something even the insanely flexible are guilty of. However, it’s important to remember that being flexible presents many benefits to the human body that are not just exercised in the gym.
Most of us come to the gym for well-being: to feel better about ourselves, to make our bodies stronger and to exercise.
An athlete doesn’t need to be super flexible to benefit from taking proper care of their body. One only needs to have a flexible mind and, with proper stretching and hydration, the body will follow.
Author: Shawna Reece
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr